Friday, 3 June 2011

Is vegetarianism sustainable?

According to a 2006 report commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the meat industry is "one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems". An increase in wealth has meant that more people than ever are enjoying meat as part of their daily diet, placing a larger demand on producers. This in turn puts pressure on the environment, as animals have voracious appetites and require a great deal of space, particularly thanks to modern breeding techniques which result in more meat on the bone. The consequences of these combined factors are devastating.

The breeding of livestock now takes up 30% of the land surface of the planet, including 33% of arable land being used for feed. It produces 65% of all human-related nitrous oxide and contributes to overgrazing, erosion and desertification.

In addition, the destruction of rainforest which has occured in Brazil and other Amazon-basin countries as a result of cattle farming contributes to the escalating destruction of biodiversity. With cheaper meat flooding the market, local food cultures will inevitably suffer. Add to that the impact which a protein and animal fat-rich diet has upon the body - the increased of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other heath issues - and it is no longer possible to ignore the catastrophic effect which the modern meat industry is having upon human health.
Furthermore, the consumption of antibiotic-treated meat can lead to the growth of antiobiotic-resistant bacteria that can threaten life on a broad scale.

In addition to environmental concerns, the issue of animal cruelty has caused many to rethink the amount of meat in their diet. In many countries, mass beef production has meant that thousands cattle are kept in pens and fed on grain or corn, for which their digestive tracts are not designed. Though the cruelty of industrial hen farming has led to a broad acceptance of free-range farming, 60% of the world's eggs are still produced in battery conditions. Intensive pig farming in the United States has been criticised for its impact on traditional small family holdings, in addition to issues surrounding animal cruelty, environmental damage and public health.

These considerations have led to a renewed campaign to reduce meat consumption. Vegetarian and vegan organisations, in addition to animal rights groups insist that a completely meat-free diet is the only ethical choice. However, studies have shown that meat substitutes that we vegetarians rely on are damaging to the environment. As I discussed in a previous post, soya-based products like soya milk and tofu are derived from highly industrialised cash crop which is threatening large sections of the Amazon rainforest.

Rice has to be imported from countries with high rainfall such as China and India, and because it is such a labour-intensive commodity, often low labour costs are involved. Quinoa, the Bolivian grain, has been advocated in recent years as a healthy, life-sustaining food source. It has become so popular in Europe and America that Bolivians who had traditionally used it as a staple in their diet can no longer afford to buy it. Increased malnutition has occured in quinoa-growing areas, partly due to poor people turning to cheaper, processed foods.   

In Ireland, we have a cool, temperate climate that favours the growth of grass. For millenia cattle have thrived on this limestone-rich food source. It is impossible to deny that cattle are a huge part of our indigenous food culture. Luckily for the environment, grass-fed cattle have a much smaller carbon footprint than their industrialised, grain-fed sisters, and studies have shown that grass-fed cattle produce beef and dairy with high conjugated linoleic acid, omega 3 and vitamin E. We also have a climate which is highly suitable for growing a wide variety of vegetables and grains. Our climate, geography and history would suggest that vegetarians and omnivores alike should enjoy a healthy and varied diet in Ireland, but the facts paint a different picture.

Perplexingly, we are largely dependant on imports for much of our food supply. This can partially be attributed to our fractured food history, but more to EU farming policies, the growing contempt among the Irish for agriculture and rural life and the virtual monopoly held supermarket chains like Tesco and Supervalu which allows them to set food prices as and when they will. Even barley, the poor man's rice, is grown almost exclusively for the brewing industry and for animal feed, if this (albeit pro-GMO) website is to believed. We find ourselves teetering on the edge of disaster, should fuel shortages or natural distasters prevent staples like rice, pasta, wheat or even vegetables from arriving on our shores. It is not the fault of farmers, who have been attacked and marginalised for decades now, with food production becoming one of the least profitable and respectable professions in Ireland. Government food policies in Ireland are so bizarrely wrong-headed as to make it almost impossible for those of us who don't want to choose between eating locally and abstaining from meat.

If we wish to eat food with a clear conscience, surely we should be concentrating our efforts towards sourcing our food closer to home. As a species, reducing the amounts of meat that we consume is essential in the fight to arrest the catastrophic damage being done to the biosphere. However, vegetarianism is not the be-all answer that we might think. Unless we begin to break the links between us and the soil we face huge problems in the coming years. Food shortages and famines on a global scale will be the harvest we reap for decades of industrial food production. We have act locally to work towards some form of self-sufficiency, for the sake of our health as well as that of local communities and the planet. 

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